Humour like a whip

Print edition : August 21, 2015
What started off as a rant five years ago by the anonymous creators of a comic strip has emerged as a powerful voice of intelligent, disenchanted urban citizens.

MONDAYS would never be the same for those who got hooked to “Crocodile in Water, Tiger on Land” (CWTL), the comic strip that debuted on the Internet on a bleak Monday morning in September 2010 and quietly, almost surreptitiously, gained popularity/notoriety all over the country and even abroad. Now, much to the delight of its ever-increasing army of fans, this irreverent, caustic, wickedly unapologetic yet tender, hilarious and beautifully illustrated strip will be coming out in a much-anticipated book form published by HarperCollins.

The title, “Crocodile in Water, Tiger on Land”, suggests the very nature or the essence of the cartoon strip. It comes from the old Bengali maxim meaning “no safe spot around”. Wielding humour like a whip, the creators of CWTL spare no one. If they are scathing in their attack on the intolerance and prevarications of right-wing ideologues, they are no less sparing of the hypocrisies of the Left; the centrists need not be complacent, for they are not safe, either.

Though political issues are dealt with extensively and with merciless satire, it would be incorrect to bracket CWTL as simply a political cartoon. It encompasses society at large in a snarling embrace. Not just the doublespeak of politicians and the corruption of the system, the very attitude and response of the citizens themselves are held up in exasperated yet affectionate reproof and laughter. Crooked political heads, pretentious pseudo-intellectuals, the dragon mother, the corpulent corporate honcho, the pony-tailed, bearded wannabe-corporate-honcho who lives with his mother, the cantankerous old pontificating misanthrope, fundamentalists of all sorts, emaciated beggars and mangy stray dogs, and people from all walks of life, including the creators of the script themselves, express their absurd reactions to equally ludicrous but all-too-real situations. The world of CWTL comprises a handful of these characters that symbolise or embody a mindset, or an attitude, or just an all-too-familiar typecast.

At a time of increasing intolerance on the part of ruling parties towards dissent or criticism of any sort, this black-and-white cartoon strip acts as a Monday-morning stress buster. It could well be alternatively titled: All That You Wanted to Say About the World Around You but Couldn’t. What started off as a rant by the creators of CWTL emerged as a powerful voice for intelligent, disenchanted urban citizens.

The creators of the script, who have chosen to remain anonymous, told Frontline: “We started the comic strip in 2010 as a sort of practice run on the Web. It was essentially about things that annoyed us in society—serious issues as well as petty matters. We thought we would discontinue it after a few months. But soon we realised that we had got ourselves a dedicated set of readers who kept coming back for more. Once when the server of our site was down, and we couldn’t upload the strip, readers started posting on our Facebook page, enquiring if everything was all right. And these were all total strangers.”

The CWTL creators soon realised that what annoyed them also annoyed a whole lot of other people, not just in Kolkata but all over the country. This realisation also served to change their vision for the strip, and what initially started off as a Kolkata-centric comic became national in its outlook.

From important policies and decisions of the Central and State governments to the harassment of women in public transport—all is fair game for CWTL. The comic puts forward serious questions in the form of humour and also holds up for laughter and ridicule the gullibility, hypocrisy and malleability of basic human nature in the most common situations. For example, one strip deals with an attitude that is often witnessed in the country—the well-known weakness for the West and particularly white-skinned foreigners. A Bengali couple expresses irritation at loud voices shattering the silence and the romantic atmosphere of a serene evening. At first they cannot immediately catch the language of those voices and promptly denounce them for being non-Bengali philistines who should be barred from tourist spots. Then they realise that the voices are speaking in French, and almost immediately the irritation is transformed to admiration and what was being denounced as crude becomes civilised.

It was not long before CWTL’s reputation spilled beyond India. One major landmark for the comic was when in May 2012 the famous writer Cory Doctorow cited it on the website—one of the most reputed and credible curators of interesting content on the World Wide Web. “Being featured on boingboing was important for us as we got new readers from outside the country,” said the writer of the script. In 2014, the Helsinki-based political bimonthly magazine Ydin did a feature on the comic strip. One of the reasons for the success of CWTL is its artistic aspect, which sets it apart from others of the genre. The artwork is strikingly original, stark and nuanced at the same time. Interestingly, the characters born of the strip are drawn in entirety, but when it comes to presenting real-life public figures like politicians and celebrities, the artist focusses on certain prominent physical attributes and idiosyncrasies of the individual that stand out, rather than depict him or her in full form. So remarkably accurate are the observations and their artistic representations that even though no names are mentioned, there can be no doubt regarding the identity of the person on the page.

“The words and the images have to work together, the images need to be stark and symbolic to make the words hit more powerfully. Each strip is usually written with a character in mind once the topic is chosen. If it’s an unnamed narrator we use props and scenes to tell the story,” the illustrator of the strip told Frontline. The creators of CWTL insist that they are not simply political cartoonists but serious students of the comic genre. When asked why they continue to remain anonymous to their fans, they answer simply: “We want our work to be judged by its own merit.”

Their refusal to divulge their identities has in no way diminished the popularity of their strip. “CWTL is a wonderful antidote to the inevitable reality of the Monday morning blues. I find the cynicism refreshing, the offensiveness democratic, and the anonymity, especially in the age of surveillance, tantalising,” Sudipto Sanyal, a teacher of English at Techno India University in Kolkata, told Frontline. The degree of devotion of the fans to the strip can be gauged not just by the likes and shares on social media sites but also by the endless discussions online and offline by readers. But the biggest tribute would probably be “Love song to Crocodile in Water Tiger on Land” composed by a reader and put up on the Internet, whose lyrics go:

“Even if they F.I.R my @#$%

I’ll still like and share your status

And if the Modi-bhakts crash through my door

They’ll find me on the floor, on all fours,

Laughing at your joke.”

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